Children in the UK have the lowest happiness levels in Europe. That’s one of the main findings of The Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Report 2020. And one of the possible reasons cited for this trend is because British children are feeling pressure from society to take things on the chin and have a stiff upper lip.

Now the stiff upper lip idea is something we’ve discussed before. In our Nailing The Helpful Colours to the Mast blog, we talked about how the British are famous for having a stiff upper lip and not ‘doing’ feelings. But is that approach helpful? What is the true impact our children?

Stiff upper lip stifling happiness?

How can it be that even now in 2020, our younger generations are handicapped by the British stiff upper lip? What does it mean that they are not comfortable plugging into the vital information that feelings contain?

UK children have lowest happiness levels in Europe. Image credit: The Children’s Society Good Childhood Report 2020

Let’s look at the importance of understanding our feelings in more depth to find out…

What do your feelings mean?

Feelings are like the sat nav in your car. They are like your customised and interactive guidance system, helping to steer you forward.  The right direction forward depends on what feels helpful and what feels unhelpful to you. For example, the feeling discontentment, for example in a relationship or a job, is like the sat nav telling you that you’re going somewhere you don’t want to be.  It means that you need to stop, or at least slow down to get your bearings, map what’s going on and ‘recalculate’ your choices and actions to then drive you forward to where you actually want to be going. 

Many people believe that the word ‘feelings’ only means emotions but actually, the word describes anything we feel, both physical or emotional. Whether you are feeling happy, tired, motivated or in pain, it’s the feeling information that let you know what’s going on.  Looking a bit closer you’ll find that feeling happy is got both an emotion to it and a physical sensation. The same applies to feeling tired, it has both an emotion and a physical sensation to it. 

Feelings are information

We are so used to taking it for granted that when we are hungry we have something to eat that we don’t notice that knowing first of all how to interpret the feeling of hunger correctly and then taking appropriate action to respond to this feeling is actually vital for survival. It wouldn’t be very helpful if when we felt hunger we put on a jumper thinking the feeling meant that we were cold, we’d soon starve to death or from overheating.

When looking at emotional feelings the same principles apply. Feeling happy lets you know that you are enjoying your experience. For you to know that this is an enjoyable experience is key, if you didn’t have that important piece of information, you are unlikely to seek to experience that again.

A great place to start when it comes to exploring and understanding your feelings is the First Aid for Feelings course on the Insight Timer app. The course is designed to help you recognise feelings — even unhelpful ones — and deal with them in a constructive way.  

You listen to Day 1 for free and without even creating an Insight Timer account to check if this is something that could be helpful for you. 

Learn to understand your feelings better

How do you know what you are feeling? What actually lets you know? It takes practice to build up awareness of your feelings. It’s a bit like learning a new language. You start, for example, by learning the word for bread and then you learn the words for wholemeal bread, then you can order a wholemeal baguette and even know the words for asking for seeds on top. 

This is why we talk about Health Literacy and Emotional Literacy, the ability to read and communicate this information. 

We’ve spoken about Health Literacy before in our blogpost on why Black Health matters, but in a nutshell it’s about how good a position someone is in and how much knowledge they have to make appropriate health decisions for themselves.

Emotional Literacy is similar, but focuses instead on a person’s ability to understand and express their own feelings and well as respond appropriately to other poeple’s emotions with understanding.

More to feelings than meets the eye

Let’s take for example anxiety. Do you know how you feel anxiety? You may feel anxiety in the form of tense muscles, headaches, nausea as well as in thinking the certain thoughts over and over. We’re all different, so the key is recognising your own signs. How does it show up for you? We all feel anxious at times and indeed, there can be a helpful nugget to anxiety but unless we know how to extract that and take action we’re likely to struggle. This post by Harvard Health goes into more depth on recognising and easing the physical symptoms of anxiety. Hopefully, you’ll find it helpful.

What feelings do you recognise easily?  What feelings do you find harder to name and understand? Maybe you’re not sure what the difference is between feeling excited and nervous? Many people struggle with the difference between resignation and acceptance for example. Do you have words to describe how you feel?  If you were to describe how you feel now in three words, what words would you use?

Learning to read feelings

The Insight Timer course of First Aid for Feelings teaches you about feelings, how to recognise that you are feeling them and how to develop the skill of spotting the choices you have.  It also has a three step technique to help you with your feelings which is summed up with the ABC mnemonic.  This stands for Awareness – Breath and Body – Choice.  You can read about this technique in more detail here in the ABC for Feelings blog post.

What do you do with the information about your feelings?

Once you develop more awareness of what you are feeling, how you know you are feeling this and not something else and how to describe your feelings, the obvious question is what you do you then do with that information.

Your tendency may be to dismiss your feelings or brace yourself as you weather them and wait for them to pass. You may be critical of yourself for feeling them or of others who you associate or relate to those feelings. The risk here is that when you dismiss a feeling or get stuck in being critical you lose the opportunity to learn what information is contained in the feeling and what action is needed to complete or resolve the feeling. The real value and power is in getting curious about the feeling and what triggered it in the first place.

It is more helpful to be curious than critical.

An example of a helpful and curious question is: ‘I wonder what this feeling might be telling me?’ or ‘if I didn’t feel this feeling what would I not know?’ Is it telling me that I’m cranky because I’m hungry or that I’m angry because my colleague keeps speaking over me at meetings?

The next step is to look at what am I doing to respond to this feeling? Is it helpful? What are my choices? Depending on what the information is this would require very different choices and actions. You may feel you don’t have a choice and that there is no point. This is rarely the case, there are almost always some choices. Ask yourself: ‘If I were to have a choice, what might that be?’ Invite the possibility that there might be choices you’re not currently aware of.

Write it down or say it out loud

What’s your method for figuring out your feelings? Writing can help you get  a perspective and find a way through. Talk things through with a trusted friend or a professional, and experiment with speaking things out loud to and with yourself.

This means that you are engaging not just your thinking brain but also your vocal cords and muscles, as well as your hearing. That in turn means that you’ve got much more overall brain processing power, increasing the potential for you finding a helpful way forward.

When you dismiss your feelings, you have lost the opportunity for learning and action and more likely to be disempowered. Plug into your power: learn to read and respond to your own information.

My invitation to you is that instead of dismissing your feelings (if that’s what you usually tend to do) or seeing them as something to endure until they ‘blow over’, consider experimenting and exploring them.

Get curious and experiment with what works

While taking painkillers at the first sign of headache might seem right and helpful, you will never know if an alternative approach would afford better results unless you try. After all, you don’t learn how to swim by watching documentaries, right? You need to actually get in the water at some point. So in terms of a headache, have you had enough water? Have you had enough sleep? Do you need to move your body and loosen up tense muscles? Are you feeling anxious and so tightening your posture and facial muscles causing strain on your head? What action is worth experimenting with at this point?  This is not a post of about never taking painkillers, it’s about getting specific and informed so that you’re using painkillers wisely and appropriately rather than your first port of call. 

You are a role model 

Remember that Childhood Report mentioned at the beginning? Your behaviour and response to your own feelings isn’t just about you and the impact on your own wellbeing.  We humans learn from each other and we repeat what our role models show us in terms of their behaviour.

Stop and think about how your approach to your own feelings impacts your children. If what they see is you immediately reaching for painkillers when you feel a headache coming on, what is it saying to them?

Encourage your children and the other youngsters in your life to talk about feelings and help them feel more skilful and comfortable with their feelings by being a role model and doing it yourself too.  

This blog post was originally published in October 2017, but we wanted to give it a new lease of life by adding relevant and valuable information in light of The Children’s Society report findings. 

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Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.

All the best, Thor

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